By The Rev. Charles Hoffacker
I don’t know about you, but of all the parables Jesus tells, this one about the weeds growing among the wheat irritates me the most. In many situations, I want to have happen what the farm hands in this story are ready to do: pull up the weeds, throw the bums out, see the world free from the latest set of scumbags, and do all this immediately. But that is not how the story goes. The landowner won’t allow such direct action. In the face of this, maybe we need to look at the story more carefully.
Two topics deserve more explanation than this parable itself is able to give them. The first is the weeds. The second is one of the landowner’s words.
Let’s look at the weeds first. The gardeners among us may raise a suspicious eyebrow at not pulling out the weeds until harvest time. Certainly this is no way to run a farm.
But consider the weeds that have grown up in the wheat field are an annual grass that looks very much like wheat. Distinguishing one from another in the early stages of growth is nearly impossible. As the plants mature, the roots of weeds and wheat intertwine and become almost inseparable. Yet separating them is necessary. Unless the weeds are removed, then flour made from the wheat will be ruined by the weeds, which are both bitter and mildly toxic. The usual solution is to harvest the plants, spread them on a flat surface, and then remove the weeds, which by this stage are a different color than the wheat.
So the weeds can be separated from the wheat only at the proper time, following the harvest. This brings us to something the landowner says. “Let both of them grow together until the harvest.” This may make sense to us in the context of growing wheat in a field where there are weeds. Where it dismays us is elsewhere in the world, where we want to clean house, or at least expect God to do so.
From our perspective, who are the weeds growing like crazy in the wheat field of the world? These are the plants we want to yank out by the roots.
— These are the people we want to lock up and then throw away the key.
— These are the people we want to strap in the electric chair.
— These are the people we want to bomb into oblivion.
There are times when many of us, at least momentarily, see this as the obvious solution. We want the wheat field of the world to flourish with wheat, and not to be scarred by weeds.
Or we may sublimate our rage, our impotence, our despair into a question about God. Why doesn’t God do something about those people (whoever they are)? Where is God when they commit their horrible crimes?
The parable does not deny that there are weeds in the wheat. It does not suggest for a moment that the world is free from evil. Instead, the weeds are all too visible. The landowner knows what’s happened — “An enemy has done this!” (v. 28). Yes, the world is a terribly broken place. What is meant to be a wheat field is hosting countless weeds.
And so we hear from the landowner, “Let both grow together until the harvest.” This may perplex us. This may baffle us. It sounds as if the landowner is resigned to letting his fertile field become little more than a weed patch.
As we have looked carefully at the weeds, so we must now look carefully at a word. The word is the one which, in this translation, is rendered as “Let” as in “Let both grow together until the harvest.”
The original Greek word here is one with a wide range of meanings. One major meaning appears in our translation: “let,” in the sense of allow or permit. Another major meaning is
“pardon” or “forgive.” It is with this meaning that the word appears in the Lord’s Prayer in that line where we say, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”
Robert Farrar Capon builds his interpretation of this parable on these two meanings of the same word. [“The Parables of the Kingdom” (Eerdmans, 1985), chapter 8, especially pages 105-108.] “Let both grow together until the harvest” carries in the original language a sense of forgiveness toward the malicious enemy.
If so, then this parable invites us to costly discipleship. The very real evil that others do is not to be answered by pulling out the weeds, by attacking and destroying the people responsible. Doing so only adds to the harm. Instead, our response is to be forgiveness, and a willingness to trust in the purposes of God.
In this view, God the landowner practices forgiveness and patience. And by his example the same approach is recommended to us. Certainly this patience and forgiveness appears to be how God functions in the world. Look around you, and see everywhere in the world the weeds and the wheat growing together, sometimes in dramatic, horrible ways –sometimes in ordinary, ugly, everyday ways.
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And you and I — sometimes we are wheat and sometimes we are weeds. St. Augustine, in commenting on this parable, makes the same point when he says: “There is this difference between people and real grain and real weeds, for what was grain in the field is grain and what were weeds are weeds. But in the Lord’s field, which is the church, at times what was grain turns into weeds and at times what were weeds turn into grain; and no one knows what they will be tomorrow.” [“Sermon 73A.1,” quoted in Manlio Simonetti, ed., “Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament 1a, Matthew 1-13” (InterVarsity, 2001), p. 277.]
God gives us all amazing latitude to make choices, to do right, even to do wrong to the point of inflicting grievous harm on others and on ourselves. And God does not pull people out of the mire of their mistakes by condemning them, but by forgiving them. It’s a strange way to run the world, I tell you, and sometimes it seems scandalous. Often we would like the Lord to hurl thunderbolts — only at our enemies, of course. But the record indicates God works differently than that.
The most convincing entry in this record is the story of Jesus. What does he teach? Nowhere does he even suggest that in this life we get paid back in kind for the evil we have done. Instead, he goes around telling strange and scandalous parables about patience and forgiveness, like that one today about a landowner who suffers the weeds and wheat to grow together through the many months leading up to harvest.
But Jesus doesn’t rest content with parables. When his enemies nail him to the cross, he forgives them. Risen from the dead, he forgives those disciples who skipped out on him during his hour of need, and sets them up in the business of spreading his forgiveness to anybody who needs it, which is to say everybody.
Once the harvest is in, the weeds will be recognized for what they are and thrown into the fire. There’s mercy, but there’s also justice. There’s a God who welcomes us with open arms, and there are some of us–just maybe–who will always insist on keeping our distance. Wheat and weeds. Who’s one and who’s another? Augustine reminds us that no one knows what they will be tomorrow.
Yes there is something greater than justice here. There is divine forgiveness, the willingness to let weeds and wheat grow together for a season because they are somehow inseparable, the recognition that revenge resolves nothing, but only increases evil. Whether we are always capable of living in the light of that truth, it is clear from this parable, clearer still from the cross, that forgiveness and forbearance are God’s way of working with a broken world. This approach may leave us profoundly uneasy, even at odds with God, but without this forbearance, this forgiveness, not one of us stands a chance.
Our preoccupation with the weeds must not prevent us from recognizing the wondrous conclusion of the parable: how indeed the harvest happens, an abundance of wheat is gathered in, enough to make landowner and farm hands rejoice together. The weeds in the field have no power to stop the realization of this bounty. The seed was good, and it bore, through adversity, a fruitful harvest. And so the parable ends on a note of brilliant triumph about that harvest: “the righteous will shine forth like the sun in the Kingdom of their Father. He who has ears to hear, let him hear!” (v. 43).
Evil is real, but it is not ultimate. It never has the last word. Greater by far are those who shine in their Father’s kingdom, those who mirror the bright light of divine compassion. Such was one person who, amid the horrors of the Ravensbruck concentration camp, found faith and hope enough to write a prayer. This prayer points us past the enemy’s evil action to the wonder of the harvest. It attests that landowner’s forbearance is not foolishness, but wisdom. Let us now dare to pray this prayer.
“O Lord, remember not only the men and women of good will,
but also those of ill will.
But do not remember all the suffering they have inflicted;
remember the fruits we have bought, thanks to this suffering —
our comradeship, our loyalty, our humility, our courage, our generosity,
the greatness of heart which has grown out of all of this,
and when they come to judgment,
let all the fruits which we have born be their forgiveness. Amen.”[Michael Counsell, compiler, 2000 Years of Prayer (Morehouse, 1999), p. 469.]
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
— Copyright for this sermon 2006, The Rev. Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission. Fr. Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest and the author of “A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals,” (Cowley Publications).